Issue 012: I Wonder If
He Remembers Me
14 March 2012
“The woman I’m thinking of
She loved me all up
But I’m so down today”
“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.”
“. . . You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first.”
Happy birthday to Dante and Virgil Starsailor, who, in the measure of human time, are now four years old. In the world of cats, they are nearly thirty-five years old.
Meow meow. Purr purr.
I love you both.
• • •
I recently got a haircut. I went to Birds Barbershop, which is a place that would have to admit is nauseatingly trendy if I didn’t like it so much. I like it because they give you free beer while you wait and the stylists all have tattoos and they’re using playing Arabia Mountain over the PA system. So I let the whole trendy thing slide. I have made peace with it.
Jessica did my hair. She was very friendly and had a bit of an “I don’t put up with any bullshit” attitude. I liked that. She did a phenomenal job on my hair, despite my vague instructions (“Make it hot”).
I ended up with an asymmetrical Adolf Hitler cut. We worked on it together, Jessica and I. She would say, “Like this?” and I would say, “Just a little more off the sides, Jessica.” I told her to make it uneven on purpose. She laughed. She liked that. So now there’s a little spike of hair at my part, and big swooping bangs on the right.
She asked me if I wanted girls to like me. I shrugged. “You’ve got the mustache going,” she said, “and the maroon corduroy pants.”
“Yes,” I said, “and this haircut will be the last step. I will finally—finally—look like someone’s dad twenty years ago.”
Jessica told me I had “dark-ass hair”—and that it seemed even darker because I’m pale as death. She said she had to dye her hair to get it that dark. Her hair was black.
I told her I had no idea why my hair was so dark, because my father has dirty blond hair, and my mother has lighter brown hair. I joked that maybe my father was some other guy.
“What do you do, Ryan?” she said.
“Oh, me?” I paused. For the first time in a year, I didn’t have to say “I stay at home and do nothing. Sometimes I go places with no money.” I actually did have a job.
I opened my mouth again: “I’m an editor at a publishing company. We put out science journals—vaccines, cancer research, stuff like that.”
“Whoa,” said Jessica. “That’s some heavy shit.”
Before I could say “Not really”, she brushed the hair off the back of my neck and handed me another beer.
• • •
Welcome, friends, to Issue 012 of The Starsailor Newsletter. Issue 012 was originally going to be a collection of small vignettes that I had neglected to tell in earlier issues. I was going to do this because I wanted to remember a lot of what had happened to me in the last six months, and because there were some real gems in there. That and not a lot was going on—I was staying at home reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and listening to Delta Spirit’s new album.
And then I had some newer, fresher stories to tell, all of a sudden. I will save my older stories for another time—perhaps Issue 013 or 014.
This will be a short(er) Newsletter, because I need to get to work on Issue 013. That and I feel like talking about “the cat issue” one last time. I’m sorry. I just really miss those little boys.
• • •
The title for this week’s issue, “I Wonder If He Remembers Me”, refers to my son, Dante Allan Poe Starsailor, and if he remembers my existence. I do wonder this a lot. I wonder it about fifteen-to-thirty times a day.
I have researched how well a cat’s memory works, but have come up with very few answers. And anyway I am more likely to dismiss evidence that refutes the answer I want to hear, which is that yes, he does remember me.
And it’s not as though I don’t want his brother, Virgil Wilkes Booth Starsailor, to remember me. I love Virgil just as much as I love Dante.
But Dante and I were buddies. He loves me so much, because of the way I smell and because I’m the only human he knows who can speak his language. See, Dante doesn’t meow unless he’s very hungry—he usually chirrups. Rrrrrrlllllllll. I can rapidly flick the tip of my tongue against the roof of my mouth and create the very same sound. He loves it. I must be saying something very interesting to him when I do that.
Whenever I would go out of town, Madeleine would tell me he got very sad. He would hide under my bed and only come out to eat (which is Dante’s very favorite thing to do). When I got home, he was always so happy. He would rub against my leg and purr and smell my shirt and my bag, wondering where I had been.
And when I eventually took my pants off, I would place them on the floor so he could crawl into one of the legs. He loved my pants.
I sure do miss ol’ Dante and Virgil.
• • •
I tried to write an essay about them just after midnight—minutes after their fourth birthday ended. I got extremely upset about six hundred words in. I don’t think I’ll finish it. It made me cry too much.
This is what I wrote:
Dante & Virgil:
An Essay on Cat Ownership
Yesterday would have been Dante and Virgil’s fourth birthday. Dante and Virgil are my cats. In cat years, they would be somewhere between thirty and thirty-five years old.
I haven’t seen them in almost seven months. And as you might imagine, those seven months—that’s much longer for them. To Dante and Virgil, seven months equates to years of their lives.
I don’t even know if they remember that I’m their father anymore. Or that I exist. That thought alone keeps me awake at night. It makes cry harder than anything I can think of.
• • •
I talk and think and write about them often. I would say that their little faces occupy a great deal of my idle time. I sure do seem to have a lot of idle time these days.
I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do anymore. I’ve been waiting for an awfully long time. Why am I waiting again? I sometimes wonder that. Their mother doesn’t want to see me. She took them out of my apartment while I was in San Francisco. I came home and they were gone. There was a note taped to my desk.
It said, among a lot of other things, this:
(I need to flatten out this note . . . it is badly crumpled. I have read and re-read it so many times—and each time I do, I ball it up and toss it at the wall.)
“I hope you are not too surprised that I’ve taken custody of [Dante and Virgil].”
(I was very surprised. I was devastated.)
“I’m sorry it had to happen this way. I did not take them away out of anger or spite, and it was not a decision I made at all lightly. I want to do what is best for them, regardless of what either of us might want.”
(I’ve always taken issue with this line for several reasons. I won’t explain them here.)
“. . . I was left with only two options. I could either totally give up the cats to you, or find a way to take care of them myself. I believe it is in their best interest to live with me right now for several reasons . . .”
She goes on to say, in so many words, that I’m insane, and incapable of taking care of two cats.
I don’t know about the first part, but the second part is patently untrue. I was very good at taking care of my cats.
(I have folded the note into two halves and placed it neatly in my journal. I’m too sad to do any paper-crumpling tonight.)
• • •
I found Dante and Virgil way back in March 2008. They were from a litter of four. When the woman asked me which two I wanted, I said, “The grey one and the orange one.”
She said, “My granddaughter is going to be so mad that I gave away the little orange one.”
They were born in a little row home on East Lombard Street. On the day they came home with me, they were seven weeks old. They were tiny as they could be. I could fit Dante, who was the runt, in the palm of my hand.
They were forty dollars each. They smelled awful.
I was given the orange one. “You’re Virgil,” I said. Madeleine was given the grey one. “You’re Dante,” I said.
I held Virgil up my chest, and he hung on with his little kitten claws. His whole body was shaking. He’d never been outside before. He was very scared.
We took them back to the car and put them in a cardboard box, which had a towel folded at the base for them to sleep on. There was a little saucer with water in it.
We drove them home.
• • •
Very quickly, I would like to explain the origin of Dante and Virgil’s names (if it wasn’t obvious):
Dante Allan Poe Starsailor is named after two poets. The first is Dante Alighieri, famous Italian poet and author of the Divine Comedy. His middle names, of course, come from Edgar Allan Poe, who, if you’ll remember, wrote scary stories and poems about a hundred and fifty years ago.
Why Dante? Because I really do love the Divine Comedy. And it’s just so fitting. I knew he was born a Dante as soon as I looked into his little blue baby kitten eyes. He could have had no other name.
And Allan Poe because Dante is from Baltimore, and Poe was a famous resident. Also, Dante is a very moody cat. He’s quite dark. He sits on windowsills during rainstorms for hours, pondering the depths of the gloom.
Virgil Wilkes Booth Starsailor is named after a poet and an actor/assassin. Virgil comes from Publius Vergilius Maro, who lived between 70 and 19 BC. You’ve probably heard of him because he wrote the epic Aeneid. In the Divine Comedy, Virgil acts as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory.
Wilkes Booth is from John Wilkes Booth, a famous Marylander, theater actor and murderer of Abraham Lincoln. (Maybe I shouldn’t have named my cat after John Wilkes Booth.)
When I announced to my family what I had named my cats, my grandmother turned to me and said, “Oh, you would.”
Another time, when I was having my wisdom teeth taken out—and just before I was injected with a needle that would make me fall asleep instantly—the dentist-surgeon asked me if I had any pets. “Yes sir,” I said, “two cats—both boys.”
“And what are their names?”
“Dante and Virgil.”
“That from something? What’s that from?”
“Uh, the Divine Comedy.”
“Oh. What’s that?”
I passed out.
• • •
So I got very sad when I wrote that little essay about my cats. I had begun writing it for therapeutic purposes. I wanted to write it and throw it away, or put it on my website and forget about it, or whatever, so I wouldn’t have to feel bad anymore.
It was a technique my psychologist had taught me last summer. He said, “If you ever feel like you’re so sad that you can’t function, write me an email with all of the shit you need to get out of your brain. Then I’ll delete it—and not even read it—because it doesn’t need to exist anywhere.”
Quoth Tim Rogers: “What you do is, you take these things and you show them the dumpster out back, then you send them to heaven.”
I tried. I really did. It took me about fifteen minutes to get so miserable I couldn’t stand to look at my stupid face in the reflection of my laptop screen anymore. That stupid haircut. That stupid mustache.
If I had continued to write it, there would have been a part where I talked about wanting to get hit by a bus—that’s how sad I was.
Not walk in front of a bus, or anything like that. It would just . . . happen. And then I would never again have to get on my hands and knees, like I do every night, and plead to whomever controls the cosmos to please, please, please let me have my children back. I would just be an unthinking pile of ex-human being.
How’s that for melodramatic!
Instead I began writing a very long email to Madeleine. I named it “Happy birthday Dante and Virgil!”
In three thousand words (a lean email by my standards), I apologized for the voicemail I had left the day before, on their birthday (more on that in a bit), and said that I simply wanted to send my well-wishes to my little babies, whom I not allowed to be around right now.
By the time I finished writing it, I felt like a million bucks. It had been an earnest and sincere bundle of paragraphs. I had written it from the very bottom of my badly damaged heart. I had said, sweetly, that I had been a broken man, but that I wasn’t any longer. I told her I turned to writing instead of self-mutilation. I told her I had a job, by God, and I biked to work every day. I told her about the button-down shirts and the cheese danishes and the giant iMac on my desk at work. For heaven’s sake, I told her about the mustache. I said, listen, gosh darn it, I’m a real adult now! I had the means to take take of my cats now, I said, so give me a chance.
“I’m so, so, so sorry. I don’t know how else to say it: I’m sorry. I never should have done any of the things I did. I did them because I was stupid and sad*. I’m not stupid and sad* anymore.”
(*Note: Sad, here, being the “I can’t get up in the morning/feed myself/I want to die constantly” sad that I had been for a year leading up to her departure. When I get sad now, it’s because I want my best friend and my cats back. It’s not I-can’t-exist sad. Mostly.)
I was very gentle with my words. In fact I was downright cheerful. And I meant every word! There was a big smile on my face the whole time. I was telling the God-honest truth: I’m way better than I used to be, and I deserve to see the kittens that I had raised and loved and treated like little princes.
I told her that when she was ready to speak with me again, a single letter would suffice. And not a letter as in a written letter. I told her to email or text or call me and utter any letter from the alphabet she wanted. “H,” I said. “Say, ‘H’”. I told her I would eat half a chocolate cake. I would throw a party. I would “jump over the damn moon, for God’s sake.”
“You don’t know what that one letter would do for me,” I said. “It would change my whole life.”
I will, of course, not get a reply for an indeterminable amount of time.
But I still tried my best.
• • •
When I was putting away the crumpled note she had written me on the day she took our cats away, something slipped out of the journal where I keep it. It was a postcard she had given to me on my twenty-third birthday.
It became my P.P.S. to the letter I had been writing her.
The postcard, and my P.P.S., said this:
“You’re a 23-year-old man now. When I met you, you were an 18-year-old boy. We’ve been through a lot since then and done a lot of changing together. I’m grateful I’ve had you to go through this whole ‘growing up’ thing with. Thanks for all the kind things you’ve done for me and all the good times we’ve had together (so far!). I’m sure things will only get better from here. Love you! (~★~Friendz4eva~★~) <3 Madeleine”.
And to the right of this she had written this in cursive, posing as Dante:
“I hope you enjoy your special day.
Your favorite son, Dante Starsailor”
Dante, of course, is a super genius. He’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known. The idea was that Dante was scholarly and intelligent. I laughed when I read that again.
And below that, in messy child’s handwriting, this:
“HaPpy BiRthdaY pEp-pEp!!!! P.S. I peed on ur stuff
Virgil was always more of a baby. And from time to time he would urinate on my wall if I didn’t pay attention to him fast enough.
Madeleine was making little jokes about our two boys.
• • •
She had said, “I’m sure things will only get better from here.”
When I transcribed the postcard, I really did hope for that. I closed my eyes and let my mind wash over the words. I leaned back in my chair and felt a heaviness in my chest. I sat there in silence for maybe ten minutes. Then I opened my eyes.
I leaned forward again and wrote the last line of the email: “Friends forever. I believe in that.”
I clicked “send”.
• • •
As I have said, I left her a voicemail. It was stupid of me.
It was March 7th. Somewhere on the other side of the country, two cats that I loved more than anything else in this world were turning four years old. There would be no fanfare for me. There would only be another empty afternoon, sitting and waiting in my room for a phone call or a letter or an email, saying, “You’re perfectly welcome to have the things you love so dearly back, if you’d like.”
I put on some headphones and walked down to Speedway Grocery. Jason passed me as I walked down the street. He pulled over. “Where are you going?”
“I’m, uh. I’m buying beer.”
“Do you want a ride?”
“I need to walk.”
“OK.” He drove off.
When I got there, I bought a twelve-pack of Lone Star. The man at the counter eyed me with a sort of grandfatherly curiosity. “How old are you, son?”
“Uh.” I forgot my own age for a moment. “I’m twenty-four.”
“I look a lot younger, don’t I?”
“It’s your haircut, I think.” He was talking about the Adolf Hitler haircut. The mustache wasn’t working to counterbalance the youthful swoop of my hair.
“Yeah. Well. I’m twenty-four, unfortunately.”
“Not a bad age.” He handed me my receipt. I walked out the door and put my headphones back on.
• • •
Longtime readers, I’m sure, will groan at this part of the story.
“Oh,” they’ll say. “He’s sad about his cats, and so he bought Lone Star beer and will go home and wallow in a drunken state of despair.”
Well—yes. Give me a break!
See: I have a disease in my brain, and it makes me sad about 70% of the time, ranging from mild to severe. Sometimes I feel so low I can’t even function. Other times I just feel melancholy or wistful. Nothing really has to be wrong in order to trigger these low moods. I was born sad. I’ll probably die sad, too.
They say babies born in January are, statistically, more likely to feel like a pile of dog shit a lot of the time. They’re more likely to fail.
So there’s that, too.
There is nothing on this planet that makes me feel worse than thinking about the life I once had, and how all of it is gone—including my dear baby cats.
Sometimes you just need a beer and a chair and a guitar and room to yourself.
• • •
I downed my first Lone Star pretty quickly. I stood in the kitchen talking to Jason about how I could bear this wait no longer. He did a damn good job putting up with me. He said, “I almost feel like crying, too.”
I grabbed another beer and sat on the stairs leading up to the front door. Joggers and cyclists passed by me, but no one paid me any mind. I watched them with bloodshot eyes.
When I’d had enough of the warm afternoon, I went into my room and let down the blankets hung over my windows. I turned on my desk lamp and sat down with my guitar. I played “Goodnight Irene” and “Bleeding Bells” and “Out On the Weekend”. It was sloppy and mostly bad. I was getting progressively more drunk.
By the time Chantal showed up, I was completely oblivious as to what was going on around me. I told her, probably, that I was feeling about as rotten as human being could feel. I strummed the chorus to “Goodnight Irene” and almost started to sing, but didn’t. Instead I slithered my hands around the fretboard and looked at her with a far-gone vacant expression.
“Your eyes have lost their sharpness,” said Chantal. She says that every time I’ve drunk too much. She seemed annoyed and concerned.
I slurred a few sentences about the various feelings I had that were exploiting weaknesses in my ailing mind, and she sat up and said she had to go.
“Stop drinking, Ryan.”
And then I was alone again.
• • •
“As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.”
• • •
It stopped being “fun”—if it ever had been—about twenty minutes later. I opened a beer and took a small sip and felt as though I’d had enough for one lifetime. I put the open can in the refrigerator and stumbled back into my bedroom.
I managed to peel my clothes off myself. I crawled into bed and flicked off the light. My skin was cold and damp and horrible. I had a massive headache and felt as though a snake had crawled into my stomach, and was eating me from the inside-out.
With work in the morning, I knew I had precious little time to manage the fast-approaching hangover, which, oddly enough, began to set in just hours after I’d stopped drinking. I felt it throughout my entire body—knew that it was not simply “drunk-sick”, but a full-on hangover.
I would fall asleep for ten minutes, wake up, stand up, walk into the kitchen and pour water into my mouth directly from the pitcher, and then climb into bed again. My body could not find the proper temperature to acclimate itself to. My skin would crawl with searing fire and then ache with piercing cold.
Eventually I jumped out of bed and ran into the bathroom, where I drew a hot bath, for I was deeply chilled at that moment. As the bathtub filled, I knelt before the toilet and stuck my finger down my throat. I sloshed it around until I hit the magic button, and a torrent of red liquid came pouring out of my mouth and nose. I sat for a moment and wondered what red thing I had eaten, and could find no answer. In fact I couldn’t remember having eaten anything that day. I shrugged. My stomach was still sick with alcohol, and my skin was still cool and rubbery. So I put my finger in my mouth again. The next blast was entirely clear. I sat erect and smoothed my mustache with my left hand. I was instantly relieved of all my terrible drunk afflictions.
“Woman—” I said aloud, for no one else was home to hear me talk to myself, “it’s not your fault or anything—it’s mine—but you’ve got me feeling awfully rotten today.”
I climbed over the side of the bathtub and dunked my head underwater. I thought, much as I always do when I’m momentarily feeling bad in a hot bath, of the famous Sylvia Plath quote. She was right: there isn’t much a hot bath can’t cure. So I let myself be cured.
• • •
I dried myself and put on a robe and sat down at my desk. I was still a little drunk. I found Madeleine’s name in my phone and called her without a moment of hesitation. I wanted to hear my best friend’s voice. I wanted her to pick up and be so happy to talk to me. After a few rings, I got a standard robotic voicemail message. Shucks.
There were several minutes where I talked about a lot of things that I can’t seem to recall. Something pathetic about wanting to see Dante and Virgil on their birthday and something about God and something about Christmas presents and something about being “so, so sorry.” My liver and heart were flayed wide open.
“Tell Dante and Virgil,” I said, just before I hung up, “that their dad loves them very much, and that he hopes they remember who he is.”
• • •
Before I went to sleep, I got down on my knees and looked up at the ceiling. I let old memories play out on the vast empty canvas. I thought of my little boys, and how happy they’d always made me, even when there was no other happiness in my life to be found.
And now they were gone. And now they were four. And now I was twenty-four. It had been seven months. The last time I had seen them was just before I left for California in August.
“California . . .” I said aloud. I snapped my fingers. I stood up and walked over to my computer. I booked a flight two weeks from the day.
I thought, in some weird and stupid and drunk way, that maybe—maybe if I went away for a little while—they would be there when I got back. They would be there this time.
“Yes,” I said, “I need to go back to California.”